How do we develop talented players?

The NBA is not a development league; it is a competition, and most teams strive to win as many games as possible to reach the playoffs and ultimately win an NBA Championship. However, few players are finished products, and many players enter the NBA barely out of their teens, which means that continued player development is imperative for continued team success. Therefore, coaches not on the 76ers have a balancing act: Win games and develop young players to continue to win games. 

The Spurs are lauded for their ability to accomplish both goals. In serious win-now mode with an aging core, the Spurs have managed to develop a superstar out of a former #15 pick in the midst of a three-year run that included winning an NBA championship. This season, with the best point differential in the NBA, they have developed a former D-League player Jonathan Simmons into an exciting contributor and given significant playing time to former #30 pick Kyle Anderson and European signing Boban Marjanovic. This is not unusual for the Spurs, as key members of the core Danny Green and Patty Mills were castoffs from other teams that developed into important members of a championship team in San Antonio.

The Lakers are not in win-now mode, and they feature two rookies who were top 10 picks, including the 2015 #2 pick D’Angelo Russell. High lottery picks tend to be the path from mediocrity to success, as players drafted higher have a greater chance of developing into stars than those drafted lower. Therefore, the future of the Lakers will depend in part on the development of Russell into a superstar or near-superstar, unless the Lakers assemble a new team through free agency.

Russell’s usage has been a big debate this season, and L.A. Clippers analyst Don McLean heightened the debate.

“I really wish Byron Scott would just give D’Angelo Russell the keys and say, ‘Go for it, man,’” said [Don] MacLean….“If Byron Scott would say, ‘You know what, D’Angelo? I don’t care if you turn it over 15 times tonight, you’re going to play 35 minutes, go for it,” he will figure it out,” MacLean said. “He really will.”

Scott, not unexpectantly, disagreed.

Who is right? What is the best method of developing Russell’s talent?

First, McLean did not say to play Russell if he committed 35 turnovers; he suggested that Scott should give Russell the confidence to know that he could play through mistakes. As he said, if given the leeway to play his game and not worry about mistakes, “he’ll figure it out.”

Next, Scott seemed to reply with a paternalistic response. Rather than developing Russell, he said that his job was to “protect” him. Again, I tend to believe that McLean was facetious about the 15 turnovers; I don’t think that he really believes that Russell would commit 15 turnovers. He was using hyperbole to make a point. Scott latched onto the literal statement, not the underlying message.

Scott has a point, especially with young players. You do not want to crush a young player. I have seen this happen with youth players who play in tournaments against players who are older and better and they lose by 50 points continually. For some players, this is motivation; for others, it is the end. But, these are children. Does an NBA player need protection? Would Russell crumble if he had a bad game or two? Two key attributes of success are grit and resilience; if he did crumble because of a bad game, he lacks the mental skills to be a great player. He may need to develop those mental skills; maybe failing is what he needs?

Overall, however, I agree with McLean. For a player to develop, he needs to play. Furthermore, he needs to play without looking over his shoulder at his coach every time that he makes a mistake. I watch so many high school games where the coach has a substitute running to the scorer’s table as soon as a player takes a bad shot or commits a turnover. Typically, however, this does not occur with the best player. Kobe Bryant, for instance, can shoot with impunity; Scott is not going to take him out after a miss, even when he has missed 15 shots in a row. Yes, Kobe may have earned that respect through his career, but the same happens in high school games with far less accomplished players.

This is the self-fulfilling prophecy in coaching. Coaches decide on their best players or the players whom they trust, and these players receive far more latitude when they play. When they make a mistake, the coach shrugs off the mistake as a normal error that is part of playing a complex sport. However, when another player deemed not as good or not as trustworthy makes a similar mistake, the player is substituted because the mistake is proof that the coach is correct in his opinion about the player’s lack of skill.

I coached a player once who looked at me and apologized after every mistake. She was a pleaser. I told her to stop apologizing and play. When she continued, I told her that if she looked at me after a mistake, I was taking her out of the game. The punishment was not for the mistake; the punishment was for the reaction to her mistake. I wanted to teach her that the mistake was fine, as long as she kept playing. I expected turnovers and missed shots; I did not want her trying to avoid these turnovers because then she would never take a risk or try to make a play.

I trained a player years ago whose coach substituted for him after every missed three-pointer. Of course, the coach’s step-son shot with impunity. Who played the game with more confidence? Consequently, who was the better shooter? Who was the better player? Of course the player who was allowed to play through mistakes played with more confidence and was the better shooter and player. The coach turned a 40+% three-point shooter into a player who refused to shoot because he did not want to leave the game. He turned a player who had signed an NCAA Division 1 scholarship in the fall into a role player because of his substitutions. The coach’s substitutions changed his behaviors and reduced his confidence. Of course, ironically, a shot when you know that you will be subbed out if you miss becomes a more difficult shot to make than when the coach allows you to play through mistakes and missed shots. You try so hard to be perfect to avoid the mistakes that you end up making more mistakes rather than relaxing and playing with confidence.

I have not seen a Lakers’ game this season, so I cannot comment directly on the Russell/Scott debate. My opinions are formed strictly by their words and their approaches to skill development. McLean works as an individual trainer, which means that he is biased toward his player and had never been in a situation of having to win games, motivate a team, develop players, etc. However, Scott definitely has a former’s player mentality; many former players who coach, at all levels, see to remember their playing days as being hard, and they want current players to struggle through the same battles that they faced. This does not seem like the best way to form a coaching philosophy.

Scott does not have to play Russell 35 minutes or continue to play him if he committed 15 turnovers. However, if you want to get the most out of your team, and help with the skill development of young players, you need to empower the players and give them confidence. Let them know that they can and will make mistakes, and that is fine, as long as they learn from the mistakes and do not allow the first mistake to become a second mistake (sulking after a turnover and not sprinting back on defense; in this case, I might substitute for the second mistake – not running back on defense – because that is effort-related, and not skill-related. I try hard not to punish a lack of skill).

Practice is important, but I believe that players have to play to develop their skills. When parents ask me about placing their sons or daughters on AAU teams, or choosing a high school or college, I always recommend choosing a team where they will play, and especially where they will be allowed to play through their mistakes. I believe that is vitally important for developing players.

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, The 21st Century Basketball Practice and Fake Fundamentals

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